Elements of Worship: Relationship

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  Part 5 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 5:23-26.

I saw a thing online this week that was kind of funny and cynical all at the same time:

“Marriage: Betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever.”

Kind of harsh isn’t it?  It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  That hasn’t been my experience of marriage (for the most part).  Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.  I think most of us would probably agree that any person who takes that sentence as his or her main idea about marriage is probably pretty confused about what love really is.

Then again, I think it’s more than fair to say that you and I live in a society that, as a whole, is also pretty confused about what love really is.  The evidence you can gather in a single hour of primetime television or pop radio would be more than sufficient to demonstrate what I’m talking about.  We might all laugh at the idea that marriage is “betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever” but there are some other fairy tale proverbs out there that people in our society buy into hook, line, and sinker without even thinking.  At no time of year is this insanity more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

For example, when two people are in a relationship (let’s just assume they’re young) and one of them says to a parent, “Mom/Dad: how will I know when I’m really in love?  How will I know when I’ve found the one?”  What do people usually tell them?  “You’ll just know.”  What kind of malarkey is that?  I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide about asking Sarah to marry me, I was a nervous wreck!  I didn’t know anything!  On the one hand, I had this great relationship with someone I really cared about.  On the other hand, I was so scared that I couldn’t even see straight.  And it’s not like one outweighed the other or one canceled the other out.  Love in one hand.  Fear in the other.  Both existing in the same place at the same time.  “You’ll just know”?  There was no “knowing” about it.  Just a choice: Love or Fear.

Here’s another crazy one that you hear sometimes: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Who in the world came up with that?  Well, I did a little homework.  As it turns out, that line comes from a 1970 movie called Love Story.  The main character (whose name just so happens to be Barrett), played by the actor Ryan O’Neal, says it at the very end of the movie.  What I find particularly funny is that this same actor, Ryan O’Neal, was in another movie called What’s Up, Doc? With Barbara Streisand.  Barbara repeats the line and Ryan O’Neal, in a beautiful moment of self-parody, responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”  I couldn’t agree more.

If anything, real love should make us more ready to say “I’m sorry.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  It’s a choice that we make once, accepting the reality that we will have to make that same choice again and again for the rest of our lives.  A big part of choosing love over fear (in marriage, church, work, or family) involves our willingness to seek and offer forgiveness when things go wrong.  It’s easy to talk about love when everything is going great, but it’s something else entirely to love someone when everything has gone wrong.  The process of seeking and offering forgiveness is more broadly referred to as reconciliation.  Reconciliation is love in action.  It’s what happens when the rubber meets the road in real life and real relationships.  Anyone who has really experienced it can tell you that reconciliation is the single most miraculous event that can happen in any human relationship.

I have a hunch that that’s why the ancient Jews and Christians zeroed in on reconciliation as their primary metaphor for describing what happens in the relationship between God and creation.  They called it redemption or salvation.  The early Christians thought of this relationship as taking place in and through this person named Jesus.  Jesus was more than just an inspirational philosopher to them.  They saw something unique in him that they identified with the God of their Jewish ancestors.  This identification was so strong that the early Christians would say that to look at Jesus was to look at God.  If you want to understand what God is like, they said, just look at Jesus.

They used all kinds of poetic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus: it was like being healed from a sickness, raised from the dead, or freed from captivity.  It was like being blind, and then being able to see.  It was like being hopelessly lost, but then finding your way again.  These were all valid metaphors for describing their experience of the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus.  But the mental image they used most often was that of reconciliation.  It was the most amazing and miraculous thing that could happen between two people, to be at odds with one another and then make peace, so it made sense for that idea to quickly rise to the top and become the dominant metaphor for describing what was happening in their new and growing relationship with God.

This was and is a beautiful thing.  Christians to this very day tend to think of their relationship with God in the same way.  The only problem is that, when forgiveness and reconciliation becomes the only metaphor for describing our relationship with God, it can easily become twisted into something it was never meant to be.  The sole emphasis on forgiveness as a metaphor for salvation led, over the centuries, to an obsession with guilt and sin.  Salvation, they thought, was all about getting your sins forgiven.  In other words, it’s all about getting back on God’s good side so that nothing bad will happen to us after we die.  Christians began to think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  Theirs was an unhealthy obsession with guilt and fear that, I think, led to a gross distortion of who God is and what salvation is really all about.

I don’t think we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  I think our ancestors in the faith took the most beautiful moment in a human relationship and applied it to their relationship with God.  If we’re going to recover reconciliation as our primary metaphor for salvation, I think we need to let go of our baggage of guilt and fear.  We need to remember that reconciliation begins with God, whose love is unconditional.  Our trust in that love is what gives us the strength to be honest about who we really are and what we need to work on.

That’s why we confess our sins at the beginning of worship each week.  It’s not about guilt and fear; it’s about honesty and trust.  Knowing that we are loved (no matter what) is the key to owning up to our faults.  We have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of.

As this great love gives us the power to make peace with ourselves, we are also commissioned and ordained as peacemakers in the world.  Once we have experienced that love for ourselves, we are called upon to pass it on.  Have you ever noticed how the passing of the peace in our service is supposed to happen right after our prayer of confession?  That’s no coincidence.  We receive God’s love and then we immediately give it away.  Love begets love.  Grace begets more grace.  Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus took the idea of reconciliation quite seriously.  For him, it even trumped the importance of a worship service.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  This call to peacemaking and reconciliation is so important that Jesus was even willing to interrupt a worship service for it.  Real love should be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”.  This is love in action, not just feeling.

It’s worth mentioning that this peacemaking is not always easy.  It gets complicated.  Nowhere is it more difficult than it is for those who find themselves in physically or psychologically abusive situations at work or home.  The call for forgiveness can too often be manipulated by abusers who merely want to maintain power over their victims.  “C’mon,” they say, “can’t you just forgive me?  Don’t you believe in forgiveness?  What would Jesus do?”  They might even quote scripture to back up what they’re saying.  If you’re dealing with that kind of person: get out of the relationship.  You can’t work toward forgiveness and reconciliation if you’re still in a position where you or others are in danger of being hurt.  You can’t forgive that person until you’re safe.  Get to safety first, then work on forgiveness.

What’s more is that forgiving does not mean forgetting.  I don’t know where “forgive and forget” came from, but I can guarantee you that it’s not in the Bible.  God would never want you to put yourself or your dependents back into a dangerous situation.  Sometimes, the best way to forgive is from a distance.  Don’t put yourself in jeopardy.  Make peace in your heart as best you can.  I promise you: it still counts.

Real love is able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  Each week in worship, we re-enact a powerful ritual of redemption.  In our prayer of confession, we are empowered by God’s unconditional love to honestly face ourselves (warts and all), trust that we are loved anyway, and then go back out into the world as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.  God is not concerned about guilt and fear-mongering over what particular sins you may have committed last week.  The quality of our relationship with God is measured by the quality of our relationships with one another.  One surefire way to measure the actual quality of our relationships with one another is to look at how willing and able we are to say things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to one another.  This is love in action.  It raises us above our culture’s twisted ideas about love and brings us back to a place where we can experience what real love between people is all about.  And that, of course, points us right back to God’s infinite and unconditional love, in which we live, and move, and have our being.

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